As a body of work, the poetry of Langston Hughes presents a vision of how members of a political community ought to comport themselves, particularly when politics yield few tangible solutions to their problems. Confronted with human degradation and bitter disappointment, the best course of action may be to abide by the ethics of melancholy citizenship. A mournful disposition is associated with four democratic virtues: candor, pensiveness, fortitude, and self-abnegation. Together, these four characteristics lead us away from democratic heartbreak and toward political renewal. Hughes’s war-themed poems offer a richly layered example of melancholy ethics in action. They reveal how the fight for liberty can be leveraged for the ends of equality. When we analyze the artist’s reworking of Franklin Roosevelt’s orations in the pursuit of racial justice, we learn that writing poetry can be an exercise in popular constitutionalism.
Tsai, Robert L., Langston Hughes: The Ethics of Melancholy Citizenship (August 28, 2009). Available at SSRN: http://ssrn.com/abstract=1421596.